Earth Dies Screaming, The (1964)
Cast: Willard Parker, Virginia Field, Dennis Price, Vanda Godsell, Thorley Walters, David Spenser, and Anna Palk
Director: Terence Fisher
Nutshell: The world teeters on the brink of annihilation…shuffling robots chillingly patrol the streets of England.
Terence Fisher belongs in the masterclass category of horror film directors with an impressive body of work to bolster that claim including some of the finest films ever to come out of the legendary Hammer Studios back in the late 1950’s and 60s. The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy are regarded as genre classics and rightfully so with their swirling blend of gothic horror presented in gloriously blood splattered technicolor as never seen before.
Dracula; Prince of Darkness followed Earth Dies Screaming by a few years where Fisher’s craftsmanship is palpably undeniable. Similarly, there are scenes in The Brides of Dracula that rate with Fisher at his very best. The Earth Dies Screaming arrived in 1964 after Fisher had enjoyed immense success with Hammer’s versions of Universal’s classics.
Fisher had been riding a wave of commercial success but in those days, horror films were looked down upon as being little better than smut and directors with the skill, style and talent of Terence Fisher never got the dues they deserved for their craft until well after their demise. Fisher’s films may have generated a healthy cash flow but in terms of credibility he was in danger of being labelled “a horror director” which was just one step above a “porn director” in the business.
Horror films were generally shunned by serious critics and hardly ever represented at the major Award ceremonies such as the Oscars or Golden Globes or Cannes etc. “scary movies” were not good movies, or so it was commonly perceived, even if the box office clearly demonstrated their ability to draw crowds. The success of Psycho had opened the floodgates for low budget horror and the early 1960s saw feverish activity and growth and ultimately some signs of eventual “big league” acceptance with the arrival of films such as Rosemary’s Baby and of course The Exorcist, nominated for cartload of Awards and indeed topping the all-time box office charts for a few months before The Godfather and then Jaws and Star Wars ripped that crown away.
Horror movie directors have had to work twice as hard to gain half the recognition that a director who specializes in “issue oriented” movies has done. John Carpenter nor his films ever got Oscar nominations, nor did those of Tobe Hooper nor Wes Craven or George A. Romero or Todd Browning before them. Meanwhile Ron Howard, who is also a highly efficient director has an Oscar win and multiple nominations to his credit.
The Earth Dies Screaming has one or two rather startling aspects about it. Firstly, its running time is extraordinarily short at just 62 minutes rendering it as an elongated short film or an extremely abbreviated feature film. The second quite startling feature is that the Original Score is composed by a female composer, Elisabeth Lutyens. Movies scored by women are a rarity and horror movies scored by women, almost unheard of.
The third element of this film that was its similarity in many ways to a film that would be regarded as a landmark within the horror genre, that being Night of the Living Dead which followed five years or so down the road. It would not be far-fetched to mention that one or two of the more suspenseful sequences are remarkably similar to the tricks employed by John Carpenter in his masterpiece, Halloween a decade and a half later. This is not to suggest that Carpenter borrowed in any way from The Earth Dies Screaming but to imply that the skills employed by Terence Fisher were some of the same methods adapted by such genre greats as Carpenter.
This film may not be Fisher’s most flamboyant effort being that it is shot in stark black and white and on a pretty miniscule scale. The greatest expense must have been wonderful space suits provided to the invaders including their Rubber Gloves and matching silver platform boots that would have the Bay City Rollers drooling with envy but more of that later. The film opens with people dropping dead like flies all over the land. A train crashes spectacularly, a plane plunges to its death, cars crash into walls…. people literally drop dead everywhere, on the street, at home, driving, walking, sleeping…everyone dead.
Just as there appear to be no survivors a man drives into a small South England village, finding nothing but death around him. He stops at some electronics shop and takes a Short-Wave Radio away to a nearby Inn where he tries to find any sign of life still out there but all he can discover is a weird drone sound. The same drone sound emerges from the TV as he tries to tune it unsuccessfully. It does appear as though perhaps all of humanity has been wiped out. Moments later a couple appear and then another couple appear to have survived and then another young couple including a very pregnant young woman also join them shacked up in the Inn desperately trying to figure out what on earth has happened and whether it is a local thing or if everyone far and wide is also dead. The most logical explanation appears to be some sort of gas attack and somehow or the other circumstances have led to this small group of people somehow surviving.
There is more horror as the survivors discover what appears to be robots trudging around very carefully and slowly but with the deadly ability to kill at a touch. These robots walk around the village, turning the dead into zombies by zapping with them a killer ray that comes directly from their dishwashing rubber gloves but these aren’t the usual pink, yellow or green gloves that we have grown to love, these are a special edition silver glove that is exclusively available to Martians and robots and you won’t find them at the local Cash & Carry.
Is it a lethal gas that has exterminated the entire human race, or is the gas only localized to England? Seems like we could be on the brink of human extinction but for the young couple about to pop a newborn baby any second now.
The robots are rampaging around the streets of Surrey as though they own the place, even if they move at an infernal speed due in most part to the highly fashionable and trend setting Platform heels they sport. In fact, they are so slow moving even the elderly could out maneuver them with ease and if you don’t get tagged by them. However, if you do get the touch, it will be a matter of time before you return as a zombie with your retinas removed to spectacular effect.
So, the battle for survival is on and the group of people thrown together by fate must learn to cooperate in order to stay alive, but will they or will greed and avarice get the better of them? Will they fight in unison or will there be treachery and back stabbing as appears to be typical human nature?
There are one or two terrifically composed sequences where one of the women is stalked by zombies and robots coming at her sideways and there is no escape. Another great sequence is when one of the zombies has the same woman trapped inside a closet and is sensing her presence and moving inexorably towards the closet where she squirms in silence within. The acting is solid and there is some crafty camerawork and one or two striking silhouettes and frames along the way.
It’s not often that a film ought to be criticized for brevity and this one is taut and tightly strung for its duration and yet the climax is arrived at with such haste that you have to wonder if it was entirely planned this way.
With a running time of just 62 minutes the film comes off more as a drawn-out episode of The Twilight Zone where there is to be a part 2 because the way it is the film has been cut it seems as though the finish line arrives a little too soon. That said, while it lasts, it’s never less than compelling. Satisfying while it lasts but ultimately leaves the viewer with an appetite that hasn’t completely been sated.